Despite Hong Kong’s international airport resuming operations this week, the intensity of pro-democracy protests and their tensions with pro-Beijing groups and police show no signs of slowing down. Initially, in reaction to an extradition law allowing Hong Kongers to be transferred to mainland China to face prosecution, the protests have now escalated to reflect wider demands of democratic reform and independence from China’s increasing influence. Protest organizers have stated that demonstrations have been made up of nearly 2 million people, which makes up over 25% of Hong Kong’s population. If true, this is one of the most extraordinary moments of grass roots politics.
Officially listed as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong is a global financial center and is the world’s tenth-largest exporter and ninth-largest importer. Home to the highest concentration to ultra-high-net-worth individuals, Hong Kong reaps huge economic rewards for its rapidly growing population. Despite this economic prosperity and trade liberty, the aforementioned region has a rich history of resistance. Brought under China’s sovereignty in 1997 following the UK and China’s joint declaration that enshrined a “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong was promised “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs” for 50 years or until 2047. However, despite pledging Hong Kong its own unique legal system, allowing for special rights including freedom of assembly and speech under Hong Kong’s ‘Basic Law,’ China has been shaving down Hong Kongers’ liberties, particularly since the suppression of the democratic ‘Umbrella Movement’ in 2014.
Since 2014, Hong Kong’s civil unrest has since been latent; however with the region’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, introducing the ‘fugitives bill,’ Hong Kongers have been on what the New York Times calls a “collision course with China’s Communist Party.” If passed, the extradition bill would not only undermine Hong Kong’s independent judicial system but would bring the region further under the country’s control. In the shadow of the Belt and Road Initiative and Greater Bay Area blue print, it is clear China is making concerted efforts to exercise greater control over its territories. In this light, the resistance not only mirrors a disagreement with the bill itself but a determined battle to maintain the democratic principles it has been promised.
Hong Kong’s political battle ground has exploded in recent weeks, with protesters resorting to fires, gasoline bombs and bricks to deface symbols of Chinese authority and resist police despite President Xi Jinping threatening “any action against China’s security and stability will be addressed without leniency, without mercy.” The tension between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China certainly runs deeper than a dissimilarity in political systems. The clear division in social organisation and commitment to social freedoms has entrenched tense oppositions between Hong Kong and China, evident with only 11% of the people living in Hong Kong identify as Chinese. As democracy advocate and former lawmaker, Martin Lee noted, “We are at a crossroads…the future of Hong Kong-the future of democracy-depends on what’s going to happen in the next few months.”
The violence and political suppression in Hong Kong, a region that has come to define capitalism and freedom in Asia, is evidence of the failure of a political experiment to consolidate ‘Beijing’s brand of authoritarianism’ with Hong Kong’s civil liberties. With China meddling in Hong Kong affairs, disqualifying pro-democracy legislators and holding missing Hong Kongers in custody, it is clear Xi Jinping’s regime intends to project their political power across Hong Kong’s lucrative economy before the 2047 transition. Nevertheless, with the intensity of the conflict escalating, the people’s determination to maintain their political independence and democratic system is one of the biggest confrontations Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism has faced since 2012.
It is promising that global democratic leaders have weighed in on the crisis. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison discredited Chinese officials for labeling the pro-democracy protesters as terrorists. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated, “We are calling for peace, for order, for dialogue … we certainly call on China to be very careful and very respectful in how it deals with people who have legitimate concerns in Hong Kong.” Nevertheless, the likelihood of peaceful negotiations seems slim with a regime that cannot legitimize democracy as an antithesis to China’s Communist ethos and a fundamental threat to Xi Jinping’s control over Hong Kong and other administrative regions including Macau and Taiwan.
Scholars such as Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese politics at King’s College London, claim the probability of violent suppression is unlikely to occur, “Anything too dramatic is going to be quite a high cost. It will be called Tiananmen 2.0, and they don’t want that kind of reputational hit.” The gathering of China’s military convoys at the border are heightening concerns for how far Xi Jinping will go to secure control over the Hong Kong region. As Steven Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute in London stated, “The Communist Party does not forget, and it does not forgive…The more successful (the protesters) are, the more the Chinese government and Xi Jinping feel embarrassed, the higher the price will be.”